The Georgia Environmental Protection Division is rethinking its interim groundwater management plan for southeast Georgia.
But that doesn't mean the farmers there -- or elsewhere in Georgia -- can take water permits lightly.
"The same permit system we've had since 1988 is still in effect," said Tony Tyson, an irrigation specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
Who needs a permit? Anyone who can withdraw 3 million gallons in a month from a deep well, pond, lake or stream, Tyson said.
"Most farmers who irrigate will use more water than that," he said. "That's anyone who can pump 70 gallons a minute."
EPD's interim plan for southeast Georgia was to have gone into effect July 1. The plan addressed a number of problems with the Floridan aquifer. The most notable of those are saltwater intrusion and decreased water pressure along the coast.
The plan affected 24 counties in three groups. In the northern and southern groups, it would simply have kept a close check on water withdrawals through Dec. 31, 1998.
In the central 10 counties, though, the plan used tougher measures. It required industries and public water systems to reduce water usage by 10 percent per day.
For agricultural uses, the plan would not have allowed any new permits after July 1.
But a series of public hearings last spring drew a flood of concerns from all sides. Debate was often tense and sometimes heated. So EPD went back to the drawing board.
"It's just a matter of time, though," Tyson said. "EPD will come back with another strategy, or some modification of the old plan. The needs are real and won't just go away. We don't know what the new strategy will be or when it will be ready. There's no set deadline at this point, but it will be soon."
In the meantime, farmers who need to add an irrigation system may still get a permit, he said, even in southeast Georgia.
In general, they need a permit if they want to apply, in any month, 1 inch of water over 110 acres, 2 inches on 55 acres, 3 inches on 37 acres or 4 inches on 28 acres.
To get a permit, farmers must act before they drill a well or install a pump.
"The first thing they need to do," Tyson said, "is apply for a letter of concurrence." That means filling out a one-page application, giving information such as the intended well size and pump capacity.
"That goes to EPD in Atlanta," Tyson said. If the agency approves, it will send a letter to the farmer saying the withdrawal system will be approved. The farmer then has two years to install the system and then get the permit.
"Some people forget that after they put the system in, they still have to apply for the permit," he said. "It will be approved. It's a formality. But it's one that has to be done."
People with old irrigation systems that need a permit but don't have one may still be able to get one. They need to contact the county extension agent.
County Extension Service offices have applications for letters of concurrence and for permits. And extension agents can help explain the requirements of the permit law.
People who need permits in southeast Georgia should apply without delay, Tyson said. The prospects for getting applications approved won't likely get any better than they are now.
"This is an indication of things to come in other parts of the state, too," he said. "We may see similar strategies in southwest Georgia as a result of the strain on groundwater resources there."